Pope Francis vowed Monday that no effort must be spared to root out priestly sex abuse and cover-up from the Catholic Church, but gave no indication that he would take action to sanction complicit bishops or end the Vatican culture of secrecy that has allowed the crisis to fester.
In a letter to Catholics worldwide following damning new revelations of misconduct in the U.S., Francis sought to project a get-tough response to the perpetrators and a compassionate shoulder for victims ahead of a fraught trip to Ireland this weekend.
Francis begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims and said lay Catholics must be included in the effort to root out abuse and cover-up. He blasted the clerical culture that has been blamed for the crisis, with church leaders more concerned about their own reputations than the safety of children.
We showed no care for the little ones, Francis wrote. We abandoned them.
But Francis alone can sanction bishops and he offered no hint that he would change the Vatican's longstanding practice of giving religious superiors a pass when they botch abuse cases or are negligent in protecting their flocks.
He said he was aware of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to ensure children are protected and hold accountable those who commit abuse and cover it up.
But he made no reference to what the Vatican plans to do, saying only: We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.
The letter was viewed by abuse survivors as little more than recycled rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the Vatican's own role in turning a blind eye to predatory priests and fomenting a culture of secrecy that has allowed crimes to go unpunished for decades.
That culture was overseen by #Vatican & codified into its laws, tweeted Colm O'Gorman, a prominent Irish abuse victim who is organizing a solidarity demonstration of survivors in Dublin during Francis' visit. He needs to name & own that.
Marie Collins, another prominent Irish survivor who resigned in frustration from the pope's sex-abuse advisory commission, said statements about how terrible abuse is and how bishops must be held accountable are meaningless.
Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable, she tweeted. That is what we want to hear. 'Working on it' is not an acceptable explanation for decades of 'delay.'
Priestly sex abuse was always expected to dominate the pope's trip to Ireland, a once staunchly Roman Catholic country where the church's credibility has been devastated by years of revelations that priests raped and molested children with impunity and their superiors covered it up.
But the issue has taken on new gravity following revelations in the U.S. that one of Francis' trusted cardinals, the retired archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, allegedly sexually abused and harassed minors as well as adult seminarians.
In addition, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania last week revealed that at least 1,000 children were abused by some 300 priests over the past 70 years, and that generations of bishops failed to take measures to protect their flock or punish the rapists.
Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all, the grand jury report said.
The letter from Latin America's first pope also comes on the heels of a spiraling sex-abuse scandal in Chile, where law enforcement has staged multiple raids on church archives to try to determine what was known and kept hidden about pedophile priests.
The three-page letter, issued in seven languages, referred to the Pennsylvania report but stressed that its message was to a much broader global audience. In it, Francis acknowledged that no effort to beg forgiveness of the victims would be sufficient but vowed never again.